Movies

Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008)

Last fall my friend Adam was discussing The Counterfeiters with a German grad student, who asked, “Why is it you’re watching so many German movies?” While he paused searching for an answer, she continued, “But then, it’s not as if American movies are about anything, are they?”

There’s enough truth in her comment for it to sting a little. After all when was the last time you watched an American movie that dealt with an issue of substance? But like most generalizations, this one falls short, too. Once in a while American movies are about things, important things like German history for example. And when a hefty dose of morality, sacrifice and heroism, is added to one, the result is a film like Valkyrie.

In 1944 a group of German Army officers attempted to execute Adolph Hitler, replace him as head of state, and sue for peace with the Allies. Most of us may be aware that such attempts were made, but probably aren’t aware of the details of the plan, nor of the character of those officers involved. Valkyrie fills in those blanks quite nicely.

At its heart Valkyrie is the story of a German hero: Claus von Stauffenberg. The movie’s von Stauffenberg is a German aristocrat and Wehrmacht officer, appalled at the Nazi atrocities; the real von Stauffenberg was all this and a believer, too. (This is hinted at in the film, but never given any substance.) His faith not only motivated his participation in the conspiracy, it lifted him from minor player to lead role.

In perhaps it’s most intriguing scene, Valkyrie imagines von Stauffenberg’s introduction to the men who became his co-conspirators. He was a colonel, they were generals, and in the presence of generals, colonels are meant to be seen, not heard. But in the midst of their discussion of how to kill Hitler, von Stauffenberg raises an embarrassing, but important question: after you kill Hitler, what next? As they gape uncomprehendingly at him, he continues with what is in essence a lesson in Christian just war theory. In order for revolution to be just, it must do more than remove an unjust ruler. That ruler must be replaced by a just government. To fail in this is to embrace anarchy. While von Stauffenberg’s argument carries the day, his fellows never wholeheartedly embrace it. In the end it is their indecision that cripples the execution of their plan.

Sound interesting? Beware: Valkyrie is a deeply flawed film. Tom Cruise’s von Stauffenberg never rises above, well, Tom Cruise. Worse than this, the film only flirts with the questions it raises; it never embraces them passionately. Despite its flaws I recommend Valkyrie; indeed, I cannot imagine a more timely film. As the United States considers how and when to remove its military forces from Iraq, I hope that watching and discussing it will teach us wisdom, even if it doesn’t guarantee success.

One thought lingers in my mind here: why is it that films with strong moral and heroic themes are rarely if ever made about the post-World War II world? In their book The Day America Told the Truth James Patterson and Peter Kim offered this answer:

“70% of Americans now say that America has no more heroes. Why are there no more heroes today? There are no more heroes because we have ceased to believe anything strongly enough to be impressed by its attainment.”

Valkyrie is a movie for those who believe—or want to believe—there are things worth dying for. Watch it and learn.

Copyright © 2009 R. Greg Grooms

Questions

1. What were your thoughts and emotions as you finished watching Valkyrie? What images from the film linger most in your mind?

2. Films about World War II are often noteworthy for their moral clarity, i.e., it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys in them. Is this so in Valkyrie?

3. Do you identify with any of the characters in the film? If so, who and why? If not, why not?

4. Who are your heroes and why? If you have none, why not? What do your heroes or the lack of them reveal about who you are?

5. Do you see von Stauffenberg—the real one, not the movie version—as a hero? Why or why not?

6. In his book True Heroism Dick Keyes argues that heroism and cynicism cannot walk hand in hand. After all acknowledging an example as truly heroic pressures me to emulate it, while cynically demeaning it let me off the hook. Does admiring von Stauffenberg demand anything from you practically?

7. Although he is not a character in the film, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his ties to the plot depicted in Valkyrie. Ironically, Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, who allowed for exceptions to the rule. In your opinion was the attempt to kill Hitler morally justified?

8. The screen writers for Valkyrie were Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander. Why do you think they were drawn to this story?

9. According to an old Russian proverb, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” What lessons should we learn from the Valkyrie conspirators?